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Thursday, 23 April 2015

A stone shoe

The light behind the curtains suggests another sunny day, with reservations. Enough to do laundry. Once the machine is rumbling reassuringly, the soaked mix tossing in the froth, I’ve emptied the waste into a plastic sack for walking to the wheelie bins, I boil the kettle for tea and coffee, slice two pieces of bread to toast, and take from the fridge my usual Christmas gift from Amy, anchovy paste – Partum Peperium –  ‘There’s only one shop in Birmingham I can get it, Dad’.

The balcony, where I take my tray, affords a view that spreads from Albania, across the border, along the high mountains of Epirus as far as the hazy space of Igoumenitsa over the shining sea between island and mainland. From the crags behind us...
...the island mountains disappear around to an inland cape covered in trees and shrubs from which stone cliffs jut now and then, over which, in winter, the sun will suddenly appear having risen red over the mainland peaks.

In April our sun rises further south, lighting three green hills a couple of miles away, clothed in olive trees that reach into the village, hiding the long shore between Pyrgi, an hour’s walk, and Dassia in the centre of the bay 10 kilometres wide between ugly Barbati, invisible from Ano Korakiana, and Corfu Town. Between the hills I can see, less than a mile from the Old Port of the city, Vido island. Due south the gentle undulations continue, completing the middle distance, dotted now and then with pink-violet blossomed Kokukyias, which some foreigners, including Lawrence Durrell, call Judas Trees.

Above them, usually in haze, sometimes invisible, more mountains – south of the city the saddle back around Agia Deka, 20 kilometres away, astride the island’s narrow tail, and to the west the mountains behind Cape Plaka forming precipices over the resorts of Ermones, Gliffada and Pelekas, facing the Ionian Sea – on their lower slopes, speckles amid the greenery, of villages. I call the time to Lin and prepare her coffee though she’ll lie abed another hour at least, muttering ‘Yes, maybe’. If only the swallows soaring across the distant haze of mountains gave people pensions; jocund weather converted to salaries; my joy in this place into its economy, but for all that we live here our contribution is paltry set against our detachment from the crisis whose slow and relentless development is being described on televisions behind shutters and doors, making the internet unreliably busy. The coach is turning back into a pumpkin, the footmen into mice. One delicate glass dancing shoe is turning to stone.
I had awoken from one of the loveliest of dreams about my mum; awoken happy too, rather than sad at realising I’d been asleep all along. Mum had been walking with me in the English countryside, stood at the lip of a long escarpment, surveying together a green landscape that stretched to a hazy horizon lit by a summer sun, then in the middle of Rome she’d sung from a balcony after breakfast ‘Mum’ I said ‘you’ve got crumbs on your tongue!’
She laughed and we were shopping in a fashionable arcade and she’d bought a dress in which she looked as beautiful as I’d ever remembered her. We hardly needed to speak; just comfortable and happy and at peace in one another’s company and all the time it seemed we both knew very well she was no longer here. It didn’t matter a jot.
'You know why we dream so much when we're here' said Lin 'Both of us! It's because our mattress is so hard we never get beyond REM sleep.'
That, not cheese?
*** *** ***
I was on the bus back to the village sat behind K.
‘Things are bad’
‘I know’ I said
It’s the first time I’ve heard her suggest we may return to the drachma.
Richard P had said that without money from Europe the first thing will be that the government can no longer pay its workers – civil servants, nurses, police, local government officers, refuse collectors, bus drivers, electricity and water workers.
‘They will strike' he said
Things will close down.
‘What do people in in England say?’ asked K
‘My brother-in-law, with many others, say it’s Greece’s fault. Get out of the Euro and let them make their own way out of the mess they created for themselves. Stop taking our money...I say I don’t want to hear such opinions.’
A friend for supper here has a similar refrain
‘Greeks have got to grow up.’
I get flustered at glib imperatives. I rehearse the counter-arguments that much of the time seem to make sense – of deliberately created national debt, the impossibility of trying to get water from a stone (or any more money that goes only to cover interest payments on a debt that is wholly unrepayable by people being turned into paupers), ‘fiscal waterboarding’; of the fact that Greece’s crisis is Europe’s, an amplified problem of advanced words are assailed by the worthy logic of economics.
But how is it across the nation? People must be watching TV as we don’t. What do they say in the streets of Ioannina, in Metsovo and Kalamata, on the islands of the Aegean, on Crete, let alone Larissa, Thessaloniki and Athens? I detect a resigned numbness with flashes of hope. People get by. Perhaps.
‘If everyone in Greece paid their taxes, the problem would be solved. If Greek institutions scoured themselves of corrupt practices...’
‘Who said that? It’s not so simple...’ I say...lamely
 On the bus I said how impressed I was by Yannis Varoufakis, and Alexis Tsipras ‘playing an impossible game with the weakest of hands.’
‘Yes, indeed’
‘Flying on empty’
‘Yes, indeed, Simon’
There is no conspicuous consumption in Ano Korakiana. People work. People nurse frappés and soft drinks as they chat in Piatsa. One family in our part of the village roasted a lamb for Easter. Vasiliki gave us plates of her delectable cakes on Easter Monday. The washing flies in the wind. People garden, as we do. Katerina gave us horta and pastichio. The people we meet are ever polite, generous and cheerful. It made the conversation on the bus the more worrying because the expression of such apprehensions. at least to us, is so rare.
Lin and I have pondered options.
I ask Mark, over a beer in Piatsa.
‘Quite simply, Simon, I don’t know anything anymore. So many people have so many opinions.’
We’ve been building a buttress to support the garden wall. Lin doing the skilled work with trowel and cement...

I carting heavy stones. We’ve made a workbench in the apothiki using recovered wood from the rebuilt balcony. These chores are pleasantly endless and simple; sawing logs, putting out washing to be dried in the wind; making a rough table, also from the old balcony. The days pass as they do in England, though here we collect firewood from the beaches and store it, sawed and chopped, in the apothiki.
Sun dried sheets

How many miles has this log floated...
...before we bring it home to saw and split for the stove?
This step we made eases the climb up the path at the back of the house
Winnie’s sent me photos of how my allotment’s coming along. Peas are rising, parsnips sprouting but where are my potatoes?
** ** ** ** **
We’ve now listed more or less every one of Aristeidis Metallinos’ works. From Tuesday to Friday for a couple of hours each midday Angeliki and I and Linda have worked through the collection, ensuring every item is numbered and measured. Serious with clipboards. We’ve added a small section for carvings of uncertain date, as well as the weathered works on the roof - stone boys astride the roof gables, a peacock at the apex, a tall woman in skirt and prim jacket and bare breasts. As work on the catalogue progresses Anna has brought us coffee, cakes and orange juice.

Andreas has helped improve our listings with recollections of his father. I am cautious with questions, learning more – but slowly. Aristeidis relied on his son to obtain his marble and stone and, since the sculptor’s death, Andreas has striven to be ‘the steward of his legacy’. The phrase is mine. After his father died in 1987 the museum that Aristeidis Metallinos wanted sustained as a gift to the village was, as far as I know, opened to visitors. I’m unclear for how many hours or days, or indeed for how many years before the place became the closed building we encountered when we arrived in Ano Korakiana in 2007. I suspect my initial difficulty gaining entry (K trying to get inside the Castle?) and even an introduction was because, after for whatever reasons the museum closed – and I speculate on these, Andreas has had quite a few individuals asking to be shown around. What happened? They had a look. They satisfied their curiosity. They went away. Did they remember anything? Were they even that impressed? Could they or did they have time for that contemplation essential to determine, in more than the most quotidian way, whether what they saw provided more than passing sensations. ‘Fascinating’ ‘Wonderful’ ‘Amazing’ ‘So interesting...where shall we have lunch?’ Where did that leave Andreas? Growing austerity in Greece must have made maintenance even trickier.
Before the sculptor died there had been promising academic articles about the ‘laic stone mason’, ‘the village sculptor’. Aristeidis seems to have had no interest in his own promotion. His interest was in the art, his trips to the open air cinema in town and views of what he watched on television, and a wish to give a gift to the village where he’d spent his life. He encountered - unknowing until near his death - the indifference of the world; hardly a problem for him, engaged with his chisels and mallets and the fascination of making things out of stolid stone and marble. At some point as he worked away in his open house he seems to have come upon disapproval. I don’t know enough about this. Just clues including the reference on his gravestone by Paraskevi Church to ‘slight bitterness’.  I suspect it may have been a problem for Andreas. Aristeidis countered with inscriptions – rebukes in marble that last, leaving a sensitive puzzle that calls for more understanding. I venture – tentatively – to explore something else missed by the academics who wrote about the laic sculptor while he was alive; Yianni M Mari in 1978 and Efrithikis Antzοulatοu-Retsila in 1985. They were intrigued by Aristeidis Metallinos as a carrier of folk-lore, of village tradition, history and culture.
The family in the fields - 195, 1986 40 x 64cms (Photo: Rob Groove)

The photos selected by Antzοulatοu-Retsila say as much. They show sculptures of villagers in traditional dress, of Greek dancing in Corfiot costume, of local individuals respected in the village and in some cases Greece – the statue of Makarios. The reliefs of the almost forgotten pastoral economy disappearing in Metallinos' final years are wonderful - a poignant lesson in another way of life. What these commentaries miss is the drubbing that Aristeidis Metallinos metes out to authority; his ridiculing of priests, of the police and the army, and the ever-present figure with cigar and top hat fondling a naked mistress, shopping for human flesh at the butchers ‘as a cure for piles’, roasting a native on a spit, ribald personifications of money men, ridicule and contempt for government – Greek, European and global. This was a man carving a permanency of anger at things he saw wrong in the world, depravity and exploitation; with this was his fascination with carnal pleasure...
"I am waiting for you. Naked" Extract 189, 1982 marble relief 40 x 59cms (Photo: Rob Groove)
 – sometimes celebrating the beauty and excitement of women, their lusciousness under the male gaze, his lust surely, yet also his interest and respect for women as strong, surging above their traditional roles as part of the farm-stock inventory, becoming  triumphant, even appropriating the traditional and oppressive weaponry of men, riding their phallic missiles, harnessing their grandiose and rather ridiculous penises. Now this must have been a handful for the family, even for parts of Ano Korakiana to which Aristeidis wished to dedicate his work.
‘So what next?’ asked Mark.
‘Well we’ve got the sculptor’s name in Greek and English wiki. One of his works will be mentioned in Richard Pine’s next book – about Greece from an Irish perspective – to be published in October. Angeliki and I speak of 'step-by-step', a year at a time to fathom the work of her grandfather. This catalogue is a logical next step – to have an inventory and an order that is more organised than the present list.’
I paused. This was insufficient.
‘And what then?’
‘Visiting the museum when we want is a privilege. The other day Andreas let me hold that first piece Aristeidis carved in stone when he was hardly 20, that women’s shoe which would have given a candidate for art school serious consideration...but how many people know about it being the only thing he carved for another fifty years? How many know about it at all? Few seeing unknown original art feel confident about its qualities – good or bad. So much art we know has been via introductions, references; from parents, teachers, books, friends, public esteem. Aristeidis’ work hasn’t been prepared for exposure or accreditation, hasn’t begun to run the familiar gauntlet of indifference, ridicule, or slight praise. People don’t know the man. His works are crowded on shelves and walls in four small rooms without commentary; a cluttered stockroom of souvenirs. His story, clearer and clearer to us, is vague, confusing, even uninviting.’
I knew I was going on too much.
The sculptor carves himself carving a ram in stone (Photo: Rob Groove)
‘Sorry’ I said ‘More has to be done to cultivate the eye of the beholder. A catalogue of the works; a selection of the most representative; themes clarified; commentaries by Greek critics – two I have in mind – a biography, perhaps by Angeliki, Andreas and I, building on my wikipedia article. Creating provenance. Our Richard could design the catalogue cover, using Jan Bowman’s sketch of the sculptor. Start with the shoe.’
‘Another pint?’
Andreas, the sculptor's son, allowed me to hold this precious shoe his father made in 1927 

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Simon Baddeley